He used to praise God the Artist in every one of God’s works. Whatever joy he found in things made he referred to their maker. He rejoiced in all the works of God’s hands. Everything cried out to him, “He who made us is infinitely good!’ He called animals “brother” or “sister,” and he exhorted them to praise God. He would go through the streets, inviting everyone to sing with him. And one time when he came upon an almond tree, he said, ‘Brother Almond, speak to me of God.” And the almond tree blossomed.
That is what Saint Francis of Assisi did, and that is what he does for us once we are caught up in his life and teachings. He makes us blossom, wherever and whoever we are. We blossom because we see in Francis what could happen to us if we were to embrace the overflowing goodness of God revealed in everything that exists, and let that embrace change us.
Here are the core teachings of Saint Francis.
The First Teaching: The Wonder of the Incarnation
God indwells churches as he indwelled the Ark of the Covenant. God indwells people just as he had first become human in Jesus Christ. And God indwells the gathering of believers, which we call the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, the fullness of the Incarnation of God.
“We thank you that through your Son you created us, and that through the holy love you had for us you brought about his birth as true God and true man by the glorious, ever virgin, most blessed, holy Mary.”
–Rule of 1221, Chapter XXIII
The Second Teaching: Evangelical Poverty
We find God when we become poor enough for God to find us. For God is a humble God, as powerless as one hanging on a cross, hands and feet bound, unable to strike out, or strike back. And in that lowly poverty of the seemingly powerless God is the greatest power of all.
“And St. Francis added: ‘My dear and beloved Brother, the treasure of blessed poverty is so very precious and divine that we are not worthy to possess it in our vile bodies. For poverty is that heavenly virtue by which all earthy and transitory things are trodden under foot, and by which every obstacle is removed from the soul so that it may freely enter into union with the eternal Lord God. It is also the virtue which makes the soul, while still here on earth, converse with the angels in Heaven. It is she who accompanied Christ on the Cross, was buried with Christ in the Tomb, and with Christ was raised and ascended into Heaven, for even in this life she gives to souls who love her the ability to fly to Heaven, and she alone guards the armor of true humility and charity.’” –Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
The Third Teaching: Live the Gospel
Like Francis and his brothers, we all can learn to love again, even in the midst of division and war. And the map Francis gave us for learning to love is the Gospel and his own life of following in the footsteps of Christ.
“And after the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what to do; but the Most High revealed to me that I was to live according to the Gospel.” –The Testament of St. Francis
The Fourth Teaching: Go and Repair God’s House
That is the Franciscan challenge in our own time: contemplative seeing, affective response, practical help, and sustained assistance as the way of restoring God’s house which is falling into ruins. It is Jesus’s own prescription for learning to love.
“Let there be no brother who has sinned, no matter how seriously, who would look into your eyes seeking forgiveness, and go away without it. And should he not seek forgiveness, you should ask him if he wants it. And if after that he were to sin a thousand times, even before your eyes, love him more than me, for this is how you will draw him to the Lord: and always have mercy on such as these.” –Letter to a Minister
The Fifth Teaching: Peace
Interior peace is the awareness that God is and dwells in all of creation, and from that awareness flows concern for nature, justice for the poor, and commitment to society.
“Go, announce peace to all people; preach repentance for the remission of sins. Be patient in trials, watchful in prayer, and steadfast in weariness. Be modest in speech, responsible in your actions, and grateful to your benefactors. And in return an eternal kingdom is being made ready for you.” –Saint Francis
The Sixth Teaching: God’s House Is All of Creation
Francis knew the two stories of the beginnings of things in the book of Genesis. One story emphasizes human beings’ dominion over all lesser creatures. The other story was about humans’ care and nurturing of all creatures, including Earth itself. Francis loved the second story more. It appealed to who he was and how he saw his relationship to the world around him. So, he would praise God through Jesus Christ with all creatures, for all creatures, and in and by means of all creatures.
Francis embraced all things with an unheard-of love and devotion, speaking to them of the Lord and exhorting them to praise Him. –Thomas of Celano, Second Life of St. Francis
The Seventh Teaching: The Joy of Humble Praise and Service of God
Francis learned how to live with all creatures, loving them and serving them, and giving God thanks for them. And now, two years before he will embrace Sister Death, God assures Francis and us that everything belongs to everything else, and everything belongs to God. Everything is thereby holy and worthy of care, and reverence, and a song of God’s praise.
“The devil is most happy when he can snatch from a servant of God true joy of spirit. He carries dust with him to throw into the smallest chinks of conscience and thus soil one’s mental candor and purity of life. But if joy of spirit fills the heart, the serpent shoots his deadly venom in vain.” –Saint Francis
The Teaching of Teachings: Love
The journey forward into God is a journey backward to an original innocence we never fully recover but where a sort of semi-paradise happens when love turns into charity. This is the highest of all loves, which Christ defined as the love of God and the love of neighbor, the total love of God leading to true love of neighbor and the true love of neighbor leading to the love of God.
“Let us love the Lord God with all our heart and all our soul, with all our mind and all our strength and with fortitude and with total understanding, with all of our power, with every effort, every affection, every emotion, every desire, and every wish.” –Rule of 1221, Chapter XXIII